Luscious Lisbon – a city on the rise
If you cast your eyes across the famous Lisbon skyline from any of the numerous vantage points or miradouros you’ll find in this hilly capital city, it’s not unusual these days to see towering cranes spoiling the magnificent views. Erstwhile sleepy districts have been given a new lease on life in the form of cafés, bars and restaurants – ranging from traditional tascas for homemade Portuguese classics, to star-laden fine dining establishments. Many of the typical tiled houses that had been left to gradually decay have been roused from their beauty slumber and restored to their former glory with new, often foreign, capital. One of the reasons is the Golden Visa program, which, since 2012, has offered people from outside Europe residency permits when they purchase real estate for €500,000.
As the famous saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. This was very much the case in Lisbon when the then mayor António Costa (now Portugal’s Prime Minister) responded to the financial crisis by breathing new life into the spirit of enterprise. The bad years, with their associated unemployment, persuaded many young people to leave the country and seek their fortune elsewhere. Costa aimed to reverse this brain drain by helping small business start-ups survive their first few years, in a bid to help get the city back on its feet again. Startup Lisboa was launched and since 2012 around 200 companies have received support.
One such start-up is Village Underground, a combined work and event space, that was started by Mariana Duarte Silva after she came across the British equivalent in Shoreditch, in the East end of London, quite by chance.
“I rented an office there for a few years to start my music management company. I realized it was nice sharing space with other creative minds, so I thought, ‘Why can’t I do this in Lisbon?’ I asked the founder and he said ‘go’ – it was crazy.”
Duarte Silva did indeed bring the concept back home to Lisbon but it took her another five years to realize her dream.
“When I came back in 2009, Lisbon was in a financial crisis and no one wanted to talk about entrepreneurship, co-work spaces or the creative industry. So, I waited until the timing was right. Today, we’ve been open for three years and we offer not only work spaces for small companies but also an eclectic multicultural program.”
Theater, movies, exhibitions, concerts and conferences are just a few of the things Duarte Silva offers in the industrial premises that house transport company Carris, somewhat hidden away beneath the mighty Ponte 25 de Abril bridge. In two double-decker buses and around 15 graffiti-sprayed containers stacked together, small entrepreneurs of different nationalities from different sectors rent space by the month or day – not an uncommon arrangement in Lisbon.
“I think the hubs here are a direct result of the recession. Many people were laid off and started their own projects, but they didn’t want to risk renting a large expensive office. They realized they could share spaces and projects and meet new people. It created a trend,” she says.
Lucy Crook, head of Second Home, another co-work space that opened in Lisbon a year ago as a spin-off from Second Home in London, envisages an influx of international companies, attracted by the lower costs.
“If you’re starting a business here as an international company, the stakes are lower. Lisbon is a good place to test out an idea, not necessarily from a market point of view, but because the operational costs are much lower. It gives you more freedom.”
Like Urban Village, Second Home is looking to create opportunities for creative meetings between people from different sectors. They not only offer workspaces for members but also lectures, events and activities such as meditation, book and surf clubs – their philosophy is that happy and inspired members will ultimately be more successful in their work.
The company office, strategically located above the Time Out Market, is designed for a creative atmosphere with a café, lounge, meeting rooms, a library and a greenhouse-like office garden, where over a thousand green plants act as space dividers between desks and contribute to a good indoor climate.
“We’ve even employed a gardener,” Crook says, laughing.
When Second Home opened in Lisbon, the vast majority of start-up companies were Portuguese – today the split is 60/40 and Crook is seeing a rapid increase in foreign entrepreneurs.
“The next generation of workforce has a different attitude to work. They want to do something that is fulfilling, that has a purpose. They’re not afraid to jump around and explore the world,” she says, adding that Lisbon attracts younger entrepreneurs with its climate, beaches and tremendous choice of music and culture.
“Lisbon is unique in that way. Not many cities in the world have the culture and the vibrancy of the city and nature so close by. Just 15–20 minutes from here you can go surfing – many even call Portugal the ‘California of Europe.’ It was a well-guarded secret for many years, but recently many have discovered it and Lisbon has become a hot city.”
Crook believes the business climate here also differs from other big cities. Due largely to the compact nature of the city – central Lisbon has not much more than 500,000 residents – it is easy to get to know people. And the Portuguese have a reputation for being naturally kind and helpful.
The fact that Lisbon has also hosted Web Summit, the Davos of the tech world, for the past two years, has also put the city in the spotlight. Over the past six months alone, Crook has seen a trend for large international companies to move parts of their operations here. Mercedes-Benz and online retailer Zalando are just two examples.
“They employ locals but they also find Lisbon an -attractive place to invite people to come and work,” Crook says. “When we opened, it wasn’t on the horizon that such big companies would come here. It shows there’s a lot of confidence in Lisbon. The start-up ecosystem always creates lots of energy from the ground up, but at a certain point you need the investment from bigger companies to grow. And now, the big companies want to mix with start-ups.”
It’s a pleasant “problem” for Second Home as it grows in line with its companies and is already in the process of organizing the opening of a new base in 2019.
However, it’s not all a bed of roses – a city that is growing fast can also suffer growing pains. Duarte Silva of Village Underground has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she welcomes the mix of people and how the economy, restaurants and bars are blossoming thanks to the creative industry and the ever-growing influx of tourists, but on the other, she fears the city may lose part of its soul in the process.
“I love the old traditional shops where I buy my socks and my pajamas on the corner of my street. I see them all disappearing to make way for yet another coffee shop. Of course, I want Lisbon to be as global as possible, but I don’t want it to become just another Berlin or London.”
Second Home’s Lucy Crook believes that Lisbon has until now been able to retain its authenticity and has managed to differentiate itself from other big cities thanks to the numerous independent stores and family-owned restaurants. Even though she understands such concerns, she nevertheless views the future with confidence.
“Lisbon has changed rapidly over the last couple of years and, as with any transformation, there have certainly been growing pains, but I remain optimistic. It’s important we all protect what makes Lisbon so special, but also embrace the new energy that’s helping create jobs and opportunities that didn’t exist here after the crisis. Lisbon is no longer just a destination to enjoy the good life and surf, it’s a city where you can build a great career. That’s been a turning point.”
Published: March 28, 2018